Crapshoot: A teen dream that's more of a nightmare


From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, it's a Valentine's trip to the other side of dating.

Ah, Valentine's Day. The one night of the year where everyone has plans. Expensive restaurants. Romantic walks under starlight. In my case, sitting on my own in an empty house with a large bag of Maltesers, constantly refreshing Twitter and Facebook to see if all the fake letters from the VD Clinic have done their wicked work on those pesky happy couples. 

Is there an Aching Solitude Awareness Day equivalent of "Bah, humbug"? Maybe some kind of Fruitella with razor blades in them? I digress.

Last year, we welcomed Valentine's Day with a dating game called Man Enough, and it was—of course—dreadful. Needless to say, there are many like it for guys. Everything from National Lampoon's Blind Date to assorted German FMV things that take a rather pornier approach. But what vicarious thrills are there for a lonely girl in need of some virtual loving? Well... there's this. It's something, right?

Games aimed specifically at girls/women have usually failed miserably, and with good reason: while often well-meaning, they tend to be patronising, half-baked crapola, based on stereotypes so shallow, they jump up on a chair at the sight of a mouse. 

Much as movies and TV shows end up having annoying kid characters that nobody hates more than the people who are meant to relate to them, you usually get a mostly male team throwing together something pastel-coloured and with lots of baking in it, working on the general assumption that this alone will make it female-friendly and fun. Though in fairness, games written by women specifically for girls/other women typically fare no better. Case in point: this.

How do you do it properly? By and large, you don't. The trick, as the adventure genre learned long ago, is not to try and change what the games are, but to make good ones, market them appropriately, and not actively seem to be in a quest to turn away half the world's population with unwelcome cheesecake and a boys' club attitude. It's definitely not to actively strip out all sense of adventure and intrigue and sexiness in favour of putting on make-up and hanging out at the mall. Making games about those things isn't a problem in itself, you understand—it's all a question of context and implementation.

As with many games, McKenzie & Co's heart is basically in the right place, though it falls for most of the usual traps. Developers Her Interactive supposedly made a big effort to take surveys and research what teenage girls wanted in a computer game, even if playing it makes you suspect they all came back with the word "Whatever" scrawled over the form in lipstick. The amount of effort in getting a whole school on board with the project is commendable. Finally, while the stories it tells are pretty dreadful, it doesn't cheap out as much as it initially looks like when it comes to telling them—it was a five-CD game, most of it made up of video, and there's a ton of footage compared to something like Blind Date.

Her Interactive is an unusual company. It started as an off-shoot of American Laser Games, the '90s arcade powerhouse that brought us feminist shooting action like this. It outlasted its parent company and is still around... if rather notably only listing two women on its About Us page and neither as CEO. These days, it basically churns out Nancy Drew games, none of which I've played, but which seem to review okay. If you're making 'games for girls', there are worse ways to go than an iconic teenage detective getting into exciting scrapes around the world—especially as boys are much less likely to play games coded as being for girls than girls are to play games supposedly aimed at boys. Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe has mentioned before that his sex-comedies ended up having about as strong a female following as King's Quest, if mostly showing up to enjoy Larry's many humiliations.

McKenzie & Co on the other hand (and oddly, no, you won't see mention of it anywhere on the Her Interactive website) starts as it means to go on—curling your toes. "McKenzie" isn't a character, you see—it's a car shared by six high-school girls. And why do they call it McKenzie? Because when they're together, they feel.... I am not making this up... Marvelous, Cool, Kinetic movement, Everlasting friendship, Nonconformist, Zany, Ingenious and Empowered. Ugh. I need an aspirin.

You get to pick between two of them, Carly the aspiring actress or Kim the... other one. Both have the same basic goal1to snag a guy and be invited to the school prom, while getting in as much shopping, gossip and make-up as can fit on a CD-ROM. Which turns out not to be very much at all.

Usually, this type of thing is referred to as a 'harem' game. An almost always male character wanders into some situation full of sexy ladies catering for every desire... or more commonly, every fetish... and gets to pick and choose. There aren't many female-targeted equivalents in gaming, but they do exist—mostly in Japan, where they're known as 'otome' games (otome meaning 'maiden'). Some are purely romantic, others more based on story and adventures. it's a pretty wide spread.

McKenzie & Co differs from the norm in one key way: you have to pick your love interest up front, which is technically done with a yearbook but may as well be a copy of Lisa Simpson's Non-Threatening Boys magazine. Each girl has two options, like Derrick the Sporty One and Steven the Smart One, and the game came with the option to order a couple more. It also somewhat curiously came with a pack of free make-up, because Girls, and a pink ribbon to raise awareness of breast cancer, which... look, it's a worthy cause, no question, but maybe not the cheeriest introduction to the world of gaming.

Picking Carly and Derrick completely at random, the game kicks off with McKenzie & Co... except for McKenzie, which is presumably parked outside and never gets to partake in pillow-fights. They're all sitting around a table admiring the 'babes' in homeroom class, and you can probably imagine the kind of dialogue. "Better than a romance novel," sighs one, staring at some hunky dreamboat.

"They're okay," adds another. "I'd rather go shopping."

Of Derrick, they all agree that he's not merely hunky, but funny—good looking, an incredible athlete, and 'completely gorgeous in a natural way'. "Every time I talk to him, I just roll in the aisles," confides one of the gang, who seems pleased with the choice. The only question... how to make it happen?

"I dare you to ask him out."

"You cannot ask a guy out—I don't care how hip it is."

"Sam's right. It's more romantic if he asks you out."

"Brian asked you out?"

"On second thoughts, ask him out..."

"I say go for it, girl."

"You don't have to ask him out to ask him out. Just find out where he is, and—"

"I'd still rather go shopping," adds Cliche Girl. And then they all have a giggly pillow fight.

Yes, really. And no, it's not interactive.

The next day or so, the gang heads down to the track where Sport is being played in the hope of finding a way for Carly to get Derrick's attention. One of them is dragging her hotdog-obsessed little brother around, sometimes literally by the ear, as they discuss just how badly their school's team is sucking. "Derrick's going to be even more upset about his arm with them losing so badly," you're told, before getting the first real decision of the game—whether to get a hotdog, or sit down. Gaming!

In what quickly becomes a theme for the game, it makes no real difference which you choose. You can get a long-distance pervy shot of Derrick thanks to a photographer friend, though one with a close-up lens on her camera, so I'm not sure how that works, or turn down the offer of a hotdog, but the story only progresses when you sit your teenage butt down on a bench and pretend to give a crap about sports.

"Ask him how his arm is. Administer some TLC!" hint the girls. "Ask for a bite of his hot-dog!" suggests the little brother. Now, this is a real decision—but luckily my extensive knowledge of the intricacies of teen romance makes it easy to avoid the obvious social faux pas.

"Can I have a bite of your hot-dog?" I ask.

"Excuse me? You want a bite of my hot-dog? That's so gross!"

Yeah, but you're not going to forget me, huh? Wait. Where are you going? Tssk. Men.

Trying the sillier option leads to a longer discussion.

"How's your arm?"

"Flahby and puny," he spurts, attempting a truly spectacular Ahnuld accent that makes me wonder if his description was "roll my eyes" instead of "roll in the aisles." Still, Cathy laughs obediently.

"It's amazing how you always keep your sense of humour no matter what!"

He looks... less than happy about this. "You know what happened?"

"Well, not all the gory details. But yeah, everyone's talking about it."

"The whole school? This is my worst nightmare! I'm the laughing stock of Madison High!"

Yeah. I'd feel more sympathetic if I wasn't increasingly suspecting a case of Wanker's Cramp.

"Nobody thinks that! Everyone's really bummed out for you!"

"That really means a lot to me..." he adds. "You're...?"

"Yeah, right. Like a year in Matheson's class and you don't remember my name..."

Oooh. Dangerous ground, sweetie. Dangerous ground.

From there, it's back to Cathy's place for the meat of the game. Like all fictional 90s teens, she lives in a room that could pull double-duty as a warehouse, full of now hilariously outdated technology—the huge answering machine especially. It's from here that you can travel around town, call up friends, and improve your chances of scoring by completing intensely boring mini-games. 

This is the first big area McKenzie & Co fails at—trying to sell teenage American girls on the daily adventure of... being teenage American girls. Exciting adventures with vampires? Not here! Thrilling love triangles? Nah. The chance to live vicariously through someone awesome? Not in this game. But doing homework and having to work a crappy Saturday job to buy stuff? You are totally covered, girlfriend!

It could still have worked if there was more to do, but of the many buildings supposedly available in town, almost all of them apart from the mall are closed throughout the game. You can buy plenty of clothes, but that's a little pointless in a game played almost entirely from the first person that doesn't have enough video to react to your choice anyway. Go to a barn-dance, and you may as well be in your bathrobe as wearing an expensive cowgirl outfit from the local store. You can call friends, but almost nobody answers—even your downtrodden 'best guy friend', who cheerily introduces himself as having a constantly wet shoulder from all the crying, and is almost certainly even now sitting somewhere in the darkest corner of the Friend Zone with several packs of delicious razor-bladed Fruitella. Most of these games at least have some kind of character development system—if only "You have to get 10 Cute points to attract Person Y". McKenzie & Co tracks your spending money, but that's all. Yawn.

The story itself only continues when you go to school, avoiding the dreadful mini-games like they were scattered around a minefield, and trying to work out why the hell all of the teachers are played by the same actor—often in drag. Things take a turn for the incredibly boring as Cathy continues her pursuit of Derrick while playing a Memory game masquerading as a maths test, but she still does well enough to be invited to a party he's going to regardless of whether she borrows a pencil (ah, the exciting life of a high school girl), or suggests he fake a spectacularly bad stomach upset to get out it.

At the party things get a little odd. The script's not worth repeating, but Derrick starts acting almost schizophrenic—inviting Cathy to a barn dance, hearing her accept, then a couple of minutes later... asking her to the barn dance. She's confused, but eagerly agrees, only to be told after the event that (drum roll) Derrick has an identical twin called Eric. Oh nos! What an embarrassing turn of events!

In one of the few moments of something interesting happening, you get the option to try and pull off a stealthy double-date—though this story branch at least firmly follows the Bad Girls Finish Last rule and you don't even remotely get away with it. Conversely, if you fess up, the universe bends over backwards to reinforce your Correct Moral Decision, up to and including having Eric show up at the house and immediately do the gentlemanly thing by getting out of the way of your True Love.

Head behind the scenes a little, and things get interesting. The whole game seems built around making big decisions, but your choices never seem to matter—indeed, sometimes actually seem MIA. At one point for example, you're clearly presented with a decision point about whether to try to impress Derrick by leaving a party and finding a ball for people to play with, or stick around and enjoy yourself. Not only don't you get to choose though, one of the girls who literally just argued with you about what you should do magically produces one from her... well, from somewhere. Best not think too carefully about it.

What happened? Well, according to the producer, who joined mid-way through development...

I started by going through the shooting script and just trying to figure out what exactly they intended to do with each scene. I had scores and scores of flow charts taped up all over my cube. It was just nuts. Time and time again I'd run into a situation where I had one branch of a decision tree figured out, but there didn't seem to be another branch. So I'd go to the fellow whose job I'd taken and ask him. He'd lean back in his chair, laugh, then shrug his shoulders and say, “Mmm.. don't think we shot anything for that.”

What I found was, in a lot of the decisions in the game, only what the founder felt was the “correct” decision for the player to make had been filmed. For instance, at one point the player was asked by her grandmother to help with a charity bake sale. A couple of scenes later, the player is asked to go to a party with her friends that happens to be at the same time as the bake sale. The player was presented with a choice: go to the party or help with the bake sale. The problem was, only the scene where she went to help her grandmother was filmed. There was nothing for if she went to the party!

Ouch... And while the version of events on the blog is obviously only one side of the story, that's just the start of McKenzie & Co's apparent problems. How do you make interesting moral choices when you have no way to follow through on them? No idea. Nor does this, which is why the rest of the game (aside from a slight pause to find whichever brother you didn't hook up with his own date to the prom) has no real option to but to roll towards the inevitable ending—you get picked up by a limo, have your photo taken, and then... well, nothing. Unless there's a proto-Hot Coffee mini-game hidden on the disc, anyway.

So which is better overall, McKenzie & Co, or the dreaded Man Enough? It's not really a fair comparison. They're aimed at completely different age groups as well as audiences, this one goes for some element of realism (if only in the way that Saved By The Bell is more realistic than, say, Trumpton), and their approaches have little in common with each other.

To give McKenzie & Co some credit, it's a much less cynical game. The characters get along, the romances are presented as honest, and there's something to be said for uncomplicated wish-fulfilment regardless of whether you want to save the world or get the perfect date for the prom. Not everything has to be edgy, not everything has to be controversial, and a romance game where the nice girl can reliably finish first is every bit as justified as in the many, many equivalents for guys.

At the same time though, there's no spark to any of the interactions you have—no genuine feeling of sentiment or emotional involvement in anything. The limited amount of space on the CD means that neither Cathy nor Kim get to spend much time with their would-be boyfriends, and a couple of scenes where the dialogue options don't matter simply doesn't cut it. Games based on reality offer so many opportunities to do things you'd never consider in real-life—and it's bizarre that games like this never did seem to realise that girls get just as much of a kick out of messing around as the boys.

That said, it's been a while since McKenzie & Co came out, and things have improved a bit. If you want to play a high-school game that understands the value of choice and letting you be the teenager you want to be, there are a few out there. Magical Diary for instance is a visual-novel that crosses otome games with Harry Potter and gives you a ton of choices that are actually fun to explore. Want to become a perfect straight-A student? That's not how the grades work, but you can do something similar. A bitchy, revenge-driven fire mage? That's fine too, and there are plenty of plot branches between 'em.

It's got its problems, like a high price, but it's a great counterpoint to stuff like McKenzie—something every bit as 'girly', but which understands the importance of being a game instead of just a giggle. At the very least, check out the demo as a comparison. Though if you're not into the general anime look and dialogue style, you may want to pack some insulin shots for the trip. Just saying, is all...